Learning outcomes and choosing less harm

Like many people who were #capal15leftbehind, I followed with great interest what people were tweeting at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) conference recently. During Henry Giroux’s talk, I kept seeing tweets about outcomes assessment, and the tone of the tweets seemed negative. It’s hard to get the full context of anything in 140 characters, so I honestly didn’t get what was going on or what Giroux was saying. I tweeted: “And what’s so bad about outcomes anyway? Why is it bad to state what we hope students will learn? #capal15 #capal15leftbehind

People tweeted all kinds of things in response. My friend and collaborator and fellow lesbian-feelings-sharer Emily said: “I think it’s joining outcomes to accountability and power that makes outcomes regimes dangerous.” I totally get this. It makes sense. I think learning outcomes can be used as a weapon: “Here’s what we think you should be learning, and god help you if you don’t get it at exactly the right timetable we’ve prescribed and DEAR GOD if you don’t graduate in precisely four years you’re really fucked.” In the context of individual classroom sessions, or in a program, or for general education purposes, learning outcomes can be wielded to homogenize, to police conformity to hegemonic understandings of what it means to be “educated,” and in this current climate—especially at public institutions like where I work—“educated” is basically a euphemism for “employable” or “future workforce fodder.”

I’ve argued in a bunch of different places that the marginal status of academic librarians, while exhausting and frustrating, can actually be an advantage in cases like this. I know it’s not true for everyone, but in my situation, my institution has defined information literacy as a general education student learning outcome. Students fulfill this outcome by taking a First Year Seminar, which has an embedded library session component. So this makes them instantly “information literate” (whatever that means), right? Well, no, of course not. But the bottom line is that my program has its own internal outcomes, outcomes we are currently revising in light of the Framework. (As I wrote a few weeks ago, I see the Framework as an invitation to rethink what I do and how I do it, and not a mandate to change, and certainly not incontrovertible ex cathedra wisdom engraved on stone tablets handed down from on high.) And since these outcomes are internal, as long as they mostly match up to the very broad, vague institutional definition, I can pretty much do what I want, within reason. This means that I can be creative and critical with learning outcomes and pretty much no one really cares or tells me I can’t. If I want to incorporate ideas about information power and privilege alongside teaching students how to think through an information problem or research need, I can and will do that. While developing activities that invite learners to evaluate information sources, I can also ask questions that invite students to think about who and what are made visible and invisible in information/research environments, and why they think that is.

Ultimately, I think it is irresponsible to not have specific learning goals for a library instruction session. You need to have outcomes and then guide the session accordingly. But if you aren’t required to use pasteurized cheese food product learning outcomes, for heaven’s sake don’t do it. If you can find a way to flatten the teaching/learning hierarchy in a way that puts learners in the driving seat, do it. If you can figure out a way of consciousness-raising about cultures of power and how they influence who gets to say what and about whom—and who gets paid to have the loudest voices—then do it.

If you’re wondering what this post has to do with this burnout blog, it’s this: I get really incandescently mad about unearned power and privilege and how they are deployed to marginalize people. Finding ways of combating and resisting that power and privilege through the library instruction classroom and reference desk makes me feel alive and purposeful. Feeling alive and purposeful gives me reason to hope and therefore resist burnout. The paradox is that critical approaches like the ones I describe are more taxing and draining than traditional modes of teaching, and this can contribute to burnout. But I really honestly cannot live with myself as a person and a professional if my politics do not inform my work.

So I guess I’d rather do what I know and believe to be right, which is ultimately more soul-feeding, rather than reinforce and support the dominant culture through my teaching practice, a culture that actively wants to erase people like me, which is obviously soul-killing. There are no perfect choices, only ones that do less harm. I’m choosing less harm.